LONG BEACH >> It was a bittersweet moment for the owners of the Art Theatre of Long Beach when about three weeks ago, the last reel of 35 millimeter film was loaded onto a projector at the 89-year- old Fourth Street movie house.
As they threaded the 2013 film "In a World" by Lake Bell, they realized the moment marked the end of an era for the theater, which, like nearly all movie theaters in the country, has now entered the digital age.
It wasn't something the theater's owners were particularly looking forward to, but the alternative would have been much worse.
"We planned on doing it sometime this season, but literally we couldn't book films anymore," said Jan Robert van Dijs, one of the theater owners as he stood next to the new $65,000 digital projector, which looks like a big black box the size of a small freezer with a lens sticking out the front.
After an initial public test run earlier this month, the historic Art Theatre, which is the last remaining single-screen venue in Long Beach, will officially mark its transition to digital projection with a yet-to-be-announced screening Oct. 25.
The expensive switch to digital was crucial in order to stay in business, since for more than a decade film studios have been changing the way movies are shown by switching to a digital format.
"It's the industry standard now. They were trying to have one consistent technology, and once the industry sort of settled on that a few years ago, they really pushed hard to have that done," said van Dijs, who is still in the midst of a campaign to raise the remaining money needed to pay for the switch.
They have raised about $23,000 for the effort so far, but van Dijs had to take out a bank loan for the rest in order to make the change as soon as possible.
"Everything is digital, you can't get 35 anymore," he said.
The 380-seat Art Theatre opened in 1924 as a silent movie house with an orchestra pit and pipe organ. At the time, Long Beach was becoming a vibrant movie town with more than a dozen single-screen theaters just in the downtown area.
Today, after undergoing several renovations, the Art Theatre is the last one standing. It shows first-run and art films, as well as classic flicks and cult hits.
"We show mainly films that we feel are more significant films. We try to show art films, Oscar-nominated films. We try to anticipate those types of films that are more relevant to the film-going community," van Dijs said.
Going digital has been particularly difficult for the small movie house since, according to van Dijs, they lose close to $20,000 a year on the theater.
"It's a big cost. A theater like this is not a great business model, that's why there are so few of them, but it's a great community asset," he said.
Patrick Corcoran, vice president and chief communications officer for the National Association of Theatre Owners, said the move to digital will save studios an estimated $1 billion a year on the cost of delivering films.
"It's the difference between delivering 65-pound reels versus a 3- pound hard drive," Corcoran said.
The change will also be better for viewers since the image from a digital projector is sharper, crisper and much stronger than what can be shown with 35 mm film, van Dijs said.
For film fans who frequent the Art Theatre, the change is about more than just the quality of the movie, it's also about keeping a traditional piece of Long Beach alive.
"I'd rather go there than to a multiplex," said Long time Art Theatre patron Barbara Brunner. "When I walk into the Art Theatre I'm walking into a historic place."
The drive to change to a digital format began around 1999 when influential director George Lucas was about to release "The Phantom Menace." Corcoran said Lucas wanted to release the first episode of the Star Wars saga only in a digital format. But at that time, a digital projector cost about $150,000, so it was a change that was too expensive for most theater operators to undertake so quickly.
Over time, however, most theaters have made the switch and today about 90 percent of screens and 80 percent of theaters across the nation use digital projectors, Corcoran said.
"It's less financially sensible to keep striking film for the few that remain. At one point, the studios will say no more film. We're telling members they should be ready for that by the end of this year," Corcoran said.
Van Dijs was aware of the coming changes when he and his wife, Kerstin Kansteiner, purchased the theater with co-owners Helen and Mark Vidol in 2007. Van Dijs and Kansteiner are the operating partners.
Still, they were hoping to continue to show 35 mm films for a few more years and spent thousands restoring and updating the old film projector. Parts of the projector dated back to the 1940s, he said.
But that changed with the digital momentum picking up so fast and few films being available in the old format, and even classic films going digital.
"They're archiving the libraries and it's becoming difficult even getting classics in 35 mm films," van Dijs said.
The old projector has now been taken apart and is being stored in van Dijs' office.
And as he walked up the narrow staircase on a recent Thursday afternoon and through the old metal fire door that leads to the upstairs projection room, van Dijs looked at several large metal film reels that were hung along a wall. They were the last few remnants of the old 35 mm system still left in the room.
There was no film in the containers, instead they now serve more as reminders of a former era, much like the sliding metal fire door that was built at a time when film was made out of nitrate, an extremely flammable material.
Back downstairs in the theater space, van Dijs pointed to where the orchestra had once performed during the silent film days in order to provide sound to the films before they were replaced by talkies.
"This has always been an industry based on technology," he said. "If you're going to be a first-run theater in 2013, then you need to be digital."
To donate funds, go to arttheatrelongbeach.com.
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